Exhibition review: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern

Corinne Julius applauds a revelatory exhibition that celebrates the pioneering role played by Sonia Delaunay in breaking down the barriers between art and design.

Colour was at the centre of Sonia Delaunay’s world; it pulsated from every painting or design that she ever created. Her trademark concentric circles, fractured squares and misaligned rectangles and blocks were suffused with every imaginable hue, the bolder and brighter the better. Delaunay dedicated her life to experimenting with colour and abstraction, bringing her ideas off the canvas and into the world through tapestry, textiles, murals, mosaic and fashion.

‘The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay’ is a revelation. First, it accords Delaunay long-overdue recognition of her importance as an artist and, second, it demonstrates and justifies her strong belief that the Applied Arts are on a par with Fine Art. Tate Modern is brought alive with her dramatic paintings and a huge gallery of her textile and fashion designs. It’s a show that cannot fail to improve the visitor’s mood, but one that may also change their view of the art-design-craft continuum.

Delaunay, like her colourways, was no shrinking violet. Born in Odessa in 1885, she was sent to live, at the age of seven, with an uncle in St Petersburg. She attended art school in Germany, went on to Paris in 1906 to join the emerging avant-garde and subsequently met and married the artist Robert Delaunay. The couple developed Simultanism, abstract compositions of dynamic contrasting colours and shape. In 1913, Delaunay produced and wore her first ‘simultaneous dress’ of bright patchwork colours. When the pair showed at the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin, Sonia’s mixing of the decorative arts with painting bewildered the critics.

Her subject matter was drawn from the energy and speed of modern urban life; from electric street lighting in Prismes électriques (Electric Prisms) to contemporary dance in Le Bal Bullier. Stranded in Spain in the First World War, Delaunay opened the successful Casa Sonia in 1918, a store selling her interior products and fashion design. She went on to design for film, theatre and dance, including costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

When the couple returned to Paris in 1921, Delaunay set up a workshop using their flat in the boulevard Malesherbes as an experimental base for her design ideas. Covering the walls, furniture and furnishings with her colourful designs, she turned her apartment into a three-dimensional collage of very dynamic juxtapositions. The photographs she took of her clothes were carefully staged against a background of her textiles, screens and painting; one of her designs was even used on a Citroën B12 car.

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In 1925, she created one of the prestigious boutiques at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes and, in 1926, she set up Atelier Simultané in Paris, selling her radical clothes and furnishings. In its largest gallery, devoted to Delaunay’s textiles, the Tate has re-created this vitrine, as well as the designs she produced, many for the Dutch company Metz & Co, for whom she worked until the 1960s. Her vast 23ft murals Aeroplane Engine, Dashboard and Propeller, created for the 1937 Exposition, also have a dedicated gallery.

Following her husband’s death in 1941, Sonia’s work became even more geometric, including rhythmic compositions in angular forms and harlequin colours, which, in turn, inspired her design of even more geometric tapestries, carpets and mosaics. After the war, she collaborated with Charlotte Perriand to design bookcases, colour schemes and furnishings for student rooms in the Cité Internationale Universitaire in Paris. Her painting career continued until her death in 1979.

The Tate show is laid out chronologically and, from the beginning in her early, almost Fauvist paintings, such as Nu jaune (1908), Delaunay’s sense of colour is paramount. Her shift to Simultanism mirrors the Futurists’ expression of modern life, yet she was not in thrall to the machine. She created wearable, liveable art. Her radical designs came to epitomise the sleek, sophisticated 1920s woman. Her fabric designs haven’t dated and her furnishings are clearly the inspiration for many contemporary textile designers.

This is a show to be treasured Delaunay’s colour is joyous. It’s good to see the Tate breaking down the false barriers between the visual arts and, with its Agnes Martin show running contemporaneously, it is one of the rare occasions on which a national institution recognises the real contribution of women to contemporary art.

‘The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay’ is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until August 9 (020–7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)